The Bible has some pretty harsh things to say about idol worship:
I will lay the corpses of the Israelites in front of their idols and scatter your bones around your altars. – Ezekiel 6:5
All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. –Isaiah 44:9
Then the cities of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem will go and cry to the gods to whom they make offerings, but they cannot save them in the time of their trouble. – Jeremiah 11:12
And of course, there is the direct commandment against idolatry in the Torah:
You are not to have any other gods before my Presence. You are not to make yourself a carved-image or any figure that is in the heavens above, that is on the earth beneath, that is in the waters beneath the earth; you are not to bow down to them, you are not to serve them, for I the Eternal you God am a jealous God. – Exodus 20:3-5
So sometimes visitors are surprised to attend services in a synagogue and see Jews carrying the Torah with reverence, touching it, and even touching it and then kissing their fingers. Isn’t that idolatry?
I like what my friend Rabbi David J. Cooper has written about this: “…if it does seem like idolatry to you, you should definitely not kiss the Torah.” If any custom or even a mitzvah feels wrong to you, don’t do it. Wait, study, and talk with a teacher that you trust. If it continues to feel wrong, trust your conscience.
Many people, myself included, kiss the Torah. I also touch the mezuzah when I go through a doorway. Here are two things to know about this practice:
Kissing any religious object (the Torah, a mezuzah, the fringes on a tallit) is not an obligation. Don’t let anyone tell you that you have to do it. It is a practice that is meaningful to some Jews and not to others.
There are many reasons for this kissing. If you ask four Jews “why kiss?” you will probably get at least five answers.
Why do I kiss the Torah when it passes by me? I kiss it out of love and reverence for what it represents. To me, it represents the centuries of Jewish striving towards holiness, centuries of struggling with a book that is passed through imperfect human hands. The Torah itself is not holy; it is a signpost that points towards holiness. When I touch it and kiss my fingers, I remind myself that it is my compass, pointing towards that which I seek.
Other Jews will have other answers. If you are Jewish, dear reader, what do you do when the Torah passes by you during the service? Do you kiss it? Why or why not?
For more about the synagogue service and how to get the most out of a service without understanding any Hebrew, check out these articles:
Lost in the Service? How to get the most out of a service even if you don’t understand Hebrew.
Dancing with the Rabbis An article about the movements you see people make in the service.
What Vestments Do Rabbis Wear? You will see unusual clothing on some people. Here’s a guide to that.
What is a Machzor? It’s the prayer book for High Holy Days. Read this if your first service will be a High Holy Day service.
What’s a Chumash? What’s a Siddur? An article about the books we use in the service.